Presenting papers and/or posters at regional and national conventions has become a "rite of passage" in our discipline. Convention presentations have become a virtual requirement for anyone who wants to attend graduate school. Unfortunately, these presentations can be quite anxiety arousing, especially for students at their first couple of conventions. Contrary to popular belief, no student has ever fallen through the floor, had a heart attack, or been knocked unconscious by a microphone. However, there have been several cases of panic disorder, dissociative fugue, baroque fugue, and other stress-related reactions. Perhaps the most serious documented case of a negative outcome is the nervous student from Lawrence, Kansas, who was so anxious he misread a p value, and 25 people left the conference thinking that grocery clerks in 1978 had significantly different attitudes toward sausage casings than did grocery clerks in 1926.
To help prevent such tragic outcomes, we interviewed a large sample (three) of experienced convention presenters (one paper each) to find out what advice they would give to new presenters. We have incorporated their ideas, but kept their identities secret to protect their reputations.
The Proper Tack for Presenting Posters
The poster route is the easiest way to break into the convention business. Based on our observations, the number of posters at conventions has increased by 436% in the last 5 years. At one convention, we counted (OK, only one of us counted) a total of 658 posters. Here are some tips to help you join in the fun.
Posters are most often a collection of 812 11 paper sheets tacked onto an easel, each sheet backed by a larger sheet of paper as a background. When presenting a poster, remember to put up more information than anybody could ever read in the two hours allotted to look at ALL the posters. The more information there, the less likely it is to find any errors.
You want people to come up to the poster and ask you questions. Therefore, be sure to use tiny print. This will force people to come right up and invade your personal space. The only exceptions to the tiny-print rule are (a) the name of the study, which should be in letters one inch tall; (b) your name, which should be two inches tall; (c) your faculty advisor's name, three inches tall; and (d) the name of your school--you guessed it: 4 inches.
If you really want to create that cutting-edge feel, you should hand-letter your entire poster. This will make it look like you just finished analyzing the data last night. To drive home the point, write in your F values as people are reading your poster.
Don't worry about using graphics; their effectiveness is exaggerated. People who use lots of graphics are showing off, wasting money, or both.
If you must use charts or graphs, remember to design them so that small differences look large in order to confirm your hypotheses. And don't bother labeling the axes; people are too busy trying to read your 1,398-word abstract and really don't need to be bothered with such details.
If anybody asks WHY you used a particular manipulation, statistical test, or questionnaire, the proper response is, "My advisor told me to." (If your advisor asks, you're on your own. . . .)
The biggest decision you need to make in presenting a poster is . . . what backgrounds to use behind each part of the poster. The second addendum to the fourth edition of the APA Publication Manual has a detailed table that outlines what types of backgrounds to use. The correct background depends on several factors, the primary one being type of school. Students from Ivy League schools and larger private schools are permitted to use laminated sheets of paper with no background at all. (Of course, the name of their school is 10 inches tall.) Students from small private schools may use marbleized stationery. Students from state schools may use construction paper. Ordinarily, those from Big Ten schools and schools with APA-approved clinical programs may use multiple colors; others use one color for all parts of the poster. Space is limited, so we cannot detail the many exceptions to these basic rules. But you may call our hot line at 1-800-BACKING.
To Sum Up Briefly . . . the Paper Session
Now, you are ready to move onto the big arena--a paper session. In a paper session you must give a 10 to 15 minute synopsis of your research. If you've ever slept through . . . er . . . attended a paper session, you know how difficult it is to give an interesting, informative presentation. Most presentations seem very boring, and you may wonder why. The reason is that being interesting or enthusiastic is not the point of a paper presentation. The point of all paper presentations is to avoid getting questions from inquisitive, brilliant, or jealous members of the audience. Thus, most presenters make their papers BORING on purpose in the hope that the audience will fall asleep and not ask questions. Attendance at a few paper sessions will indicate that most presenters are quite successful in avoiding questions.
While we have no wish to buck tradition, we believe that you can be interesting and still avoid questions. But to do this you must practice your presentation over and over again. You must practice but not for the usual reasons such as improving your style, flow, or comprehension. Practice to make sure your presentation takes as much of the allotted time as possible. This way you can reduce the possibility of nasty questions. Of course, one way to ensure that your presentation takes the full allotted time is to present not only the names, but the home and business addresses of all authors of studies you cite in your introduction.
Don't smile during your presentation; the audience might believe you are not serious. Of course, if taken to extremes, this advice may lead to either the perception or the reality of Humor Impaired Personality Disorder (see our column in the Summer 1995 issue).
Always announce that you will be finishing within a short time. Saying something like "finally and in conclusion" or "to sum up briefly" will make people (those who are still awake) stir in their seats and turn to their programs to see who is next. And always say these things halfway through your presentation (for example, see the heading at the top of this page). For long presentations, say these things when a full 20 minutes is left. This will allow your audience to fall back to sleep before the next presentation begins.
Make sure that you list dozens of coauthors, even if they did no work. Have all coauthors attend the sessions and begin thunderous applause just as you finish. Later, when colleagues ask "How'd it go?" you can respond honestly by saying, "Applause."
Now, while you are sitting (and fidgeting) waiting for your turn to present, you'll listen to other papers and silently critique each one. If you doubt this occurs, just watch the facial expressions of the waiting members of the paper session. With a little bit of experience you will be able to decipher nonverbal indicators of comments such as "He thinks that is worth presenting?" or "Whew, at least my presentation won't be the worst one" or "Why would anyone care about the effects of crowding on rats' responses to multiple-choice tests of comprehension after lesioning?"
Even with the most carefully prepared--and long--presentation, you will find that somebody insists on asking a question. Don't panic (unless it's your advisor again). Here are two surefire answers for any question:
After you have presented a paper it is considered bad form to:
high-five the chairperson of the session
put your hands up over your head and start singing the theme from Rocky
jump over rows of chairs on your way to the bar
laugh out loud at other people who are waiting to present
collect money from fellow students who bet you wouldn't make it through the entire presentation
ask if there are any journal editors in the audience who want to accept your paper for publication
announce that you won't give autographs until the other presenters are finished, or
actually start signing autographs
In conclusion, we hope that our suggestions prove to be useful. We look forward to attending your very first paper presentation. You'll see us in the first row of the audience. Don't worry, we won't ask any questions.
Spring 1997 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 60-61), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1998, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.